General Noriega on allegations of money laundering, drug trafficking, & his image in the U.S
General Noriega on money-laundering allegations
The Reagan and Bush administrations used all the means at its disposal to discredit me and the military. The drug charges were one method. I saw this indictment as part of U.S. pressure tactics and never took it seriously.
I first refused to even consider legal counsel in the case and then finally allowed my subordinates to choose lawyers — Raymond Takiff, Frank Rubino, Neal Sonnett and Jack Fernandez — through contacts with Americans in the Canal Zone.
And the Spadafora case was another tool, manipulated into a cause celebre: because of public relations, a single, unsolved murder started to take on more importance in the United States than all the thousands upon thousands of murders taking place under U.S. auspices throughout Central America. The Spadafora card was played with the help of journalists who dealt unquestioningly with all the propaganda and listened to the rantings of Spadafora’s brother, Willy, who found a life for himself in the notoriety surrounding his brother’s death. (read more on Spadafora allegations)
To add to the pressure, the Elliot Abrams & Galindo Lewis team began weaving a system of news leaks about corruption. They planted information describing impossible charges of hidden wealth and a network of supposed colleagues who were controlling massive stocks of money. Corruption became the constant drumbeat of the Americans, as if Panama under my control had invented the concept in three short years, as if it would disappear as soon as they invaded my country.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reported that in the post-invasion period, money laundering and drug dealing were rampant in Panama, far worse than before the invasion.
Corruption is endemic to Latin America; it didn’t start with the Panamanian military, and it didn’t end with its demise. If anything, without the control we supplied, corruption without an armed forces in Panama was worse than ever.
The corruption charges were interesting in light of what happened after Delvalle moved into exile in Miami, purportedly establishing a government in exile. Taking his cues from Elliott Abrams, Delvalle, along with the Panamanian ambassador to Washington, Juan Sosa, now had power over millions of dollars in Panamanian funds deposited in U.S. banks.
What they were trying to do with me was exactly what they had done so many times before, in Guatemala, in Nicaragua, in Grenada.
It was a gradual crescendo of propaganda discrediting me personally, bringing up innuendo about drug cases in which, in fact, we had co-operated with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
We tried to counteract the propaganda by publishing the letters of commendation, the evidence from the U.S. officials that we were providing assistance, so that there would be a public record of what we were doing with them. We had letters, commendations and lists of drug traffickers captured in joint operations with the DEA.
The United States manufactured an entire vision of money laundering and drug dealing that revolved around me. As proof they offered trumped-up charges about my supposed clandestine wealth and all of the intrigue surrounding my supposed accomplices.
First, U.S. prosecutors charged that Panama had created a haven for laundering drug dollars. This was false; the Americans imposed the status of banking haven on Panama for their own purposes. U.S. businessmen wanted their own version of Swiss banks and convinced their friends in Washington to play along, with help from their wealthy Panamanian banking allies.
It was none other than Nicolas Ardito Barletta, protege of George Shultz, who, with then President Demetrio Lakas, created special Panamanian banking privileges in the 1970s, along with bank secrecy laws that rivaled Switzerland’s. Buoyed by a fiercely convertible U.S. dollar, Panama maintained the largest banking sector in Latin America, all laid out and planned by the United States during the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s.
There were petrodollars everywhere, mostly from the Arab countries.
As a result, all sorts of side businesses developed. Shell companies were created, existing in name only in Panama for tax shelter purposes. Lawyers like Guillermo Endara — later installed as president after the U.S. invasion — prospered when they specialized in creating and participating in these shell companies on behalf of foreigners, for a percentage, of course.
So the bank secrecy act, propelled by the United States, fostered the growth of money laundering. Any drug dealer or any terrorist organization was permitted by Panamanian law to anonymously maintain accounts in Panama.
Nevertheless, when the United States needed banking information on such people, they came to me for help. I personally opened our books to the United States, countermanding our laws so that they could see our accounts without having to sue anyone or enter into negotiations- just on grounds of good faith and law enforcement.
Things changed when Omar Torrijos took power and started criticizing the banking system. “American money is sleeping here, but it isn’t making Panamanian babies,” he would say. There was no long-term financial benefit to Panama.
And it gave the United States a hammer with which it could punish our country. When they wanted to hurt our economy in 1988, for example, they simply pulled their money out of the banks. The banks closed, lateral businesses went bankrupt, people were forced into unemployment and we fell into a deep recession.
After charging me with being responsible for money laundering, the Americans next charged me with amassing obscene quantities of money and of cavorting with mystery men who helped me do this.
This always based on innuendo and, upon investigation, always disproved.
A report in the Miami Herald, for example, said that the Americans had no basis for the charges that I had stolen and hidden away millions of dollars.
The list of wealth supposedly included vast riches on four continents: the ones I remember are a castle in France, an apartment in Brazil, a penthouse in Japan and a hotel in Orlando. What a feast for the prosecutors, what a wealth of stories for the news media! It ended up being a famine, although the debunking of these illicit wealth stories has never been publicized very much.
Investigators went to the apartment they said I owned in Brazil and found that it belonged to Raquel Torrijos, Omar Torrijos’s widow, who lives there.
Next, they went to Tokyo and found that the penthouse I supposedly owned there was actually the official residence of the Panamanian ambassador to Japan. I stayed there when I visited Japan to discuss commercial prospects for the Panama Canal, something that made the Americans very nervous.
As for the hotel in Orlando, it belonged to the Riande chain, which also owns the Hotel Continental in Panama and a hotel on Miami Beach. The Riande chain has disclosed its officers and shareholders, showing that I am not on the list.
Finally, there was the case of the French castle. I have visited France and have been a guest at some fancy places, but never a medieval castle.
The chief of state and commander of the armed forces has considerable clout in Panama; you live like a king. You take away the king’s crown and he no longer lives like a king. It was inherent in my position and my mission for Panama that I travel around the world. Who paid for hotels and travel and meals? I was the leader, and the government paid when the leader traveled. How different is this in any other country? Was this the justification for an invasion and a drug trial? Was the Panamanian system on trial, and did the United States have the right to decide what trappings were given to Panama’s leaders? Furthermore, they were trappings of state and they remained with the state, just as happens anywhere else. Does the president of the United States take his limousine and his presidential jumbo jet with him when he leaves office?
The United States government and the prosecutors at the drug trial against me perpetuated an idiotic game. They tried and convicted me by saying that they had shady evidence of personal wealth. And since the world accepted their propaganda — I was the devil, the drug fiend — this money must be bad money. If I have any money at all, it must be from drug dealing, because everybody knows that I am who I am … but what does everybody know?
How do you know anything about me? What is the basis for an indictment in U.S. federal court form is appropriation of funds and amassing drug profits? What is the basis for an invasion and forty years in jail? In the final argument of their drug case, the government prosecutors, rather than telling the jury to convict me as a drug dealer, declared, “Convict this dictator!”
General Noriega on drug trafficking allegations
Besides the connivance of the oligarchy, there was a second factor: the change in the perception of my usefulness to the United States. At first, I was still on the “useful” list for the Americans. I was regularly invited to Washington and elsewhere for meetings and to give speeches and provide analysis.
We had regular meetings with our counterparts at the U.S. SouthernCommand and coordinated with them in accord with provisions of the canal treaties. As we have seen, I continued to provide significant help to the United States on intelligence matters.
I had excellent relations with CIA station chiefs in Panama: Joe Kiyonaga, Brian Bramson, Jerry Svat and Don Winters being among the ones I knew best. William Casey and his aides knew they could count on us when they needed us, and they respected us.
The Panamanian Defense Forces also gave strong, consistent support to the Drug Enforcement Administration. This was documented in the many interchanges of correspondence between me and my subordinates and U.S. officials. In addition, they recognized that we were not only cooperating, but providing intelligence that helped catch and target drug kingpins.
In December 1984, one year after I became commander, Panama provided information to the United States on theactivities of Jorge Luis Ochoa of the Medellin cocaine cartel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela of Call, who were setting up drug operations in Spain.
As a result, the two men were arrested in Spain for extradition to the United States. Mysteriously, because of U.S. negligence, Colombian authorities won control of the case and had both men extradited back to Bogota, where they were swiftly released.
Shortly thereafter, Panama took another major step against the Colombian drug traffickers. The government voided the charter of the First Interamericas Bank in Panama City, after an investigation showed that it was being used by another Call drug dealer, Jose Santacruz Londolio, to launder drug profits.
The lawyer for the First Interamericas Bank was Rogelio Cruz, who became attorney general of Panama afterthe United States invaded Panama, and its directors were Guillermo Endara, the man installed by the Americans as president, and his associates Jaime Arias Calderon and Hernan Delgado.
The DEA drug fight in Latin America was greatly enhanced by Panama. We encouraged the participation for the first time of other countries in the region, who were skeptical about working with Americans for fear that doing so would allow spies to operate in their countries.
I was the one who suggested and organized the first hemispheric drug conference at Contadora in 1982. It went so well that the United States decided to adopt it as an annual event. (The second year, the meeting was held in Venezuela.) Officials of the anti-drug campaign in the United States were able to hear there, for the first time, from the Latin American drug police themselves — their problems, their questions, their analysis. A great wealth of information was gathered and the contacts established were valuable, but only after the meetings were organized by me. Previously, Latin American countries had refused to share intelligence with each other, let alone with the Americans. Not only were there regional rivalries, but also they feared the United States would make use of information gathered to destabilize their governments.
But the winds of American intervention in Panama were already blowing when I took over as commander of the Panamanian DefenseForces. The wealthy classes alone would not have been enough to sabotage me. They needed a willing reception in Washington.
Operating on their own time schedule, and creating the facts as they went along, the Americans slowly moved toward attacking me and working with our Panamanian enemies for my downfall.
It is difficult for me to defend myself against the indictment that resulted in my being sentenced on September 16, 1992. The United States government saw this as a great victory, over what I am not sure.
Drug dealing in the United States goes on unabated; in Panama, without a legitimate military force, it is far worse than it was in the 1980s. Now cocaine is rampant and Panama is an important stop on the opium trail.
In any case, drug charges do not give one nation the right to invade a sovereign country and kidnap its leader. This was not dealt with at the trial, because Judge Hoeveler said he wanted to minimize the “political overtones” of the case.
He would have been hard-pressed to do so. The trial supposedly was about me and drug trafficking. But it was really about abuse of political power. I was convicted because the system that invaded Panama and killed my countrymen — while perhaps hundreds of its own were killed — needed me to be convicted.
My initial tendency here was to avoid discussing the specifics of the drug case. I was not involved in any such activities and have few means available to me to disprove a fabrication of the magnitude I faced. But I have considerable insight as to what the United States was up to in its drug conviction. And I wish to set the record straight.
First of all, Panama, as I have written, was serious in its commitment to halting drug trafficking. The charge in the United States that Panama looked the other way for drug kingpins doesn’t match with the evidence.
Our chief drug investigators during the period in question. Captains Jorge Latinez and Luis Quiel, were widely respected by their American counterparts for their skill and professionalism. Under my command, drug investigators infiltrated drug operations and interdicted traffickers of all kinds and nationalities. U.S. prosecutors at the drug trial argued cynically that our government was involved in drugs because we didn’t catch the main drug dealers; yet, by those standards, Colin Powell, George Bush and every U.S. administration since the 1970s should also be indicted, since Pablo Escobar, Jorge Ochoa and their smuggling ally, Gustavo Gaviria, all lived in the United States.They said we were a small country, unlike the United States, which was true. But we also had limited resources, and within our limited re-sources, we did an extensive job in slowing down the multi million-dollar drug trade when it tried to move through our country.
Second of all, as the leader of a sovereign country, I had every right to order my men to infiltrate drug cartels and buy cocaine themselves; the DEA does it every day and they did it in Panama. Should the DEA be charged with a crime for buying cocaine to develop drug cases? Should I have charged DEA agents with a crime for doing that in my country? Whose laws was I required to protect and who should decide how those laws are applied?
The situation in the so-called U.S. drug wars remains the same. The United States is still the greatest consumer of cocaine and heroin on the planet, but continues to pressure other, far less economically powerful countries to do what it cannot do.
If the United States cannot stem the demand for cocaine, how can a relatively poor country stop the supply?
The governments of Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, to name a few — Panama has never been a significant factor in the narcotics trade — will never be able to fight the economic power of the drug dealers. The United States knows this, yet uses its economic power to declare who is complying with U.S. drug policy and who isn’t, using the hammer of trade “de-certification,” which can be counter-productive by forcing political instability, hurting legitimate business and forcing even more drug trade.
By all standards, the United States should de-certify itself as it has done nothing significant to stop the drug trade.
For me, the trial falls into four main areas of evidence: testimony surrounding the government’s star witness, Floyd Carlton; testimony about the seizure of a cocaine-processing laboratory in the Darien jungle; testimony about meetings I had with Fidel Castro; and a supposed trip I made to Medellin, the capital of Colombian drug trafficking.
In the end, the United States government got what it wanted. The details didn’t matter. The drug case was stitched together against me in the same way that all the evidence was put together against me over a decade. Once it was decided that I was the problem, that I was the one who had to go by all means — if subterftige, murder and lies were required — so be it.
All I sought was independence for Panama. I thought Panama had the right to its own sovereignty and the right to break free of “the chains of colonialism.” Those can be empty words, but I think that inPanama, they are appropriate.
The same accusations of drug trafficking surfaced against other Panamanian leaders who dared challenge the United States in the battle for Panamanian sovereignty.
General Jose Antonio Remon, during his term of office, from 1952 to 1955, was accused of drug trafficking prior to his assassination by an American sniper.
Similarly, the Nixon administration accused Torrijos of drug trafficking and convened a grand jury to hear evidence against his brother, Moises. The charges against all of us were lies. The lies against Remon ended with his murder; those against Torrijos disappeared with the approval of the canal treaties.
General Noriega on demonized image in the U.S.
In the United States, chances are, if you saw me, it was in the most unflattering circumstances. Close to the invasion and during the trial, the video would show me raising something that looked like a sword. (It’s a machete, a symbol of the working class and indigenous revolution.)
The image said I was angry, aggressive, belligerent. Repeat it a thousand times, over and over on American television, in New York, in Washington, and you win the psychological war. But the image was a fraud, softening the American people to the idea of attacking a dangerous enemy, supposedly poised to fight.
I could not find a way to explain the images or the frauds to the American people; I did not understand America.
I had no way to explain these injustices in the living rooms and halls of power in NewYork, Washington and Miami. Perhaps Americans thought we were arming our soldiers with machetes to fight the United States.
Here I sit, waiting and hoping for my first encounter with the system of fair play. I wait here, in the faith that human fair play will overcome politics and that people will come to understand the colossal injustice of what has happened.
It is the great tragedy of a great nation that decided it could control the rules of the game and destroy lives because it was the establishment and there was no other. The United States set out under George Bush to create a new world order, which was nothing more than a new subterfuge for becoming an international policeman.
Nevertheless, I survive, struck down and persecuted, but neither despairing nor defeated. The United States has imprisoned neither my soul, nor my ideals, nor my faith, which exists in a flight of eternal liberty.
I assume my responsibility as head of government and commander in chief of the Panamanian Defense Forces during the treacherous attack by the United States on my country; no one can avoid the judgment of history.
I only asked to be judged on the same scale as the treachery and infamy of my enemies, foreign and domestic. So here I am, a traveler making my way down the long road, certain that the final chapter of the Noriega story is yet to be written.
Noriega, Manuel, and Peter Eisner. America’s Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega. 1st ed., Random House, 1997.
DEA agent says Noriega was clean — Pittsburgh Press
CIA, DEA ran the drug deals — Miami Herald
Noriega exposes Bush as cocaine kingpin — 60 Minutes
Panama Defense Force’s Artillery in the War on Drugs — Executive Intelligence Review